News Analysis: Can McCain Come Back?

October 20, 2008 12:00 am0 comments
Ben Birnbaum

This is an updated version of an article that originally was printed on Oct. 19

“For all intents and purposes, McCain’s campaign is over. The physicians have pulled up the sheet, the executors of the estate are taking over. Paying bills and winding down—not strategizing, organizing, and getting the message out—will be the order of the day.”
Thus spake Charlie Cook, veteran political prophet and publisher of the widely read Cook Report. It’s a common sentiment among political observers two weeks before Election Day, as Barack Obama increasingly projects an aura of inevitability while John McCain increasingly channels Bob Dole.
There’s just one thing about Dr. Cook’s prognosis: He made it in July … July 2007, eight months before McCain clinched the Republican nomination. At the time, the outlook for the McCain appeared bleak—his cash-strapped campaign had all but collapsed under the weight of the Iraq War and comprehensive immigration reform—and Cook’s political obituary only echoed the conventional wisdom.
For months thereafter, McCain languished fourth or fifth in national and state polls. Bettors on Intrade—the world’s leading prediction market—gave the one-time Republican frontrunner less than a 5-percent shot of winning his party’s nomination, lower than rivals Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee.
“I was one of those people who thought he didn’t have a chance,” said Howard Fineman of Newsweek and MSNBC. “I was one of those people who compared the McCain supporters in New Hampshire to the Japanese soldiers in the Phillipines at the end of World War II who didn’t know the war was over. Well, it turns out there were a lot of those soldiers, metaphorically speaking. And they still came out of the hills in New Hampshire to turn things around for John McCain.”
Despite the historical backdrop of McCain’s unprecedented primary comeback, some Democrats are already uncorking the champagne. “You can call the dogs in, wet the fire, and leave the house,” said Democratic strategist James Carville after the second debate. “The hunt’s over.”
By all accounts, McCain’s chances of winning the election are slim (16%, according to Intrade)—and for reasons largely beyond his control. The candidate who planned to run a campaign centered on national security—his strong suit—now finds himself forced to talk about the economy, a subject even he has admitted he knows little about.
“If John McCain loses this race—and the polls would indicate that that’s likely to happen—I think you’d have to step back and say, unfortunately for him, he had a horrible year to run as a Republican,” said John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times. “You have a public that is very dissatisfied with the Iraq War even though that’s not Topic A right now, that doesn’t like President Bush, doesn’t like the Republican Party, and was feeling anxious about the economy even before Wall Street melted down. And then when Wall Street melted down, that sort of solidified the cement on the idea that we’re headed in the wrong direction and made it much, much easier for Barack Obama to carry through that argument that what we need is change.”
For his part, Obama has strung together three compelling debate performances and has made inroads with demographics—like white working-class voters—that stayed cool to him during his primary battle with Hillary Clinton. He has surged ahead of McCain by 5-10 points in national polls and holds leads in states totaling 364 electoral votes (he needs 270). He sports the most formidable ground operation in campaign history, he just raised $150 million in September—almost three times the previous record, his own August total—and he now enjoys the support of one of one of the nation’s most respected elder statesmen, Retired General and former Bush Administration Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Make no mistake: At the current trajectory, Obama is poised for a landslide victory—and one would be foolish to expect otherwise. At the same time, though, Election 2008 has reminded us time and again to expect the unexpected (See: Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin). In politics, one can rarely speak with certainty about tomorrow, much less weeks from tomorrow. 15 days remains an eternity, long enough for events to intercede and turn conventional wisdom on its head. Just ask President Hillary Clinton or Vice President Tim Pawlenty.
“Anyone who’s been around Senator McCain for any length of time knows never to count him out. He’s a fighter, he’s a scrapper, and he’s not someone you want to take for granted,” said Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota and the man assumed to be McCain’s running mate until Sarah Palin took the stage that morning in Dayton, Ohio.
“The pattern of John McCain’s life is to be left for dead, sometimes literally,” added Fineman. “Shot down over Vietnam, survives, comes back; Prisoner of war, comes back; Keating five scandal, comes back. And that pattern repeated itself in the primary … So that’s why you never want to count him out. And that’s why, with a few weeks left in the election, I’m not going to count him out because he’s a little bit like the trick birthday candle—you know, you think you’ve blown it out—and he flickers back to life.”
With 15 days to go, will Senator McCain flicker back to life? Doubtful, but there’s a second time for everything.